Interview with Matthew Gentzkow

Due to this work, we now know that newspaper media slant is driven mostly by the preferences of readers, not newspaper owners. And by examining browser data, he discovered that people don’t largely live in internet “echo chambers”—that is, they don’t exclusively visit sites that align with their political bent. Product brand preferences, he found, are established early in life and endure long after exposure to essentially identical, less expensive alternatives.

That's from the introduction to this interview of 2014 Clark Medal winner Matthew Gentzkow. This immediately caught my eye because it echoes some ideas I have (which is perhaps ironic considering one of those points is about the over-estimation of Internet echo chambers).

I think the Internet has expanded, on balance, the volume of ideas on all sides that most people are exposed to, offsetting the echo chamber effect. What should concern us is how people have reacted to that broadened exposure; instead of pushing people to the center, it has increased polarization. That may say more about how we receive ideas that threaten our worldviews and tribal affiliations than it does about the inherent nature of the internet. 

Like Gentzkow, I also believe the reason so much advertising targets young people, even though it's the adults that have money, is to lock in consumer preference for life. In that respect much of that advertising is more efficient than it appears.

Frankly, this interview contains so much high quality material I can excerpt all day and still barely make a dent, so do read the whole thing.

Good news for parents who, on occasion, let their kids watch a bit of TV just to get a respite from care-taking duties.

This reflects what I think is an important conceptual point—that took a while to really sink in for us—which is that you can’t talk about the effect of TV without thinking about what it’s crowding out. TV viewing is shifting time around. And, really, for any new technology, any change that is shifting the allocation of time, its effect is the effect of that technology relative to whatever you would have been doing otherwise. 
That has pretty important implications for this question because if you think about children of different backgrounds and what else they might be doing with their time, it’s easy to imagine that for some kids, watching television is a much richer source of input than a lot of what it might be crowding out. TV has lots of language; it exposes them to lots of different people and ideas. 
It’s also easy to imagine kids for whom it could be a lot worse than whatever else they would have been doing. Educated, wealthy parents or parents with a lot of time to invest in their kids might be taking them to museums and doing math problems with them and so forth. I think part of the reason so many people writing about this assume TV is bad is that they themselves are in the latter group.

We have a strong norm in America about the corrupting influence of TV on children. I'm not sure how it arose or where it came from, but I'd love to know the history of that meme.

Regardless, what it means is that TV is often underrated for its positive aspects. I saw a paper once, though I can't seem to track it down, that showed that the introduction of TV in different countries and societies correlated with a strong rise in equality for a variety of groups including women and minorities.

That's not so surprising when you consider just how efficient television is at transmitting cultural norms. Humans love stories, and in this age those stories travel most efficiently to more people when encoded in the form of television and film narratives.

On the other hand, TV has had a negative effect on political turnout.

On the other hand, TV isn’t just political information; it’s also a lot of entertainment. And in that research, I found that what seemed to be true is that the more important effect of TV is to substitute for—crowd out—a lot of other media like newspapers and radio that on net had more political content. Although there was some political content on TV, it was much smaller, and particularly much smaller for local or state level politics, which obviously the national TV networks are not going to cover. 
So, we see that when television is introduced, indeed, voter turnout starts to decline. We can use this variation across different places and see that that sharp drop in voter turnout coincides with the timing of when TV came in.

This reminds me of an idea I've written about before, that in this age of near infinite content, we now gravitate towards an information diet that is much more reflective of our daily preferences than in the past. Newspapers of old started with the front page and included editorially prescribed sections in equal volume: World, Business, Sports, Entertainment, Autos, and so on.

I was always skeptical those sections merited equal surface area, but it wasn't until readers could actually consume anything they wanted that we had a true view of their preferences. The internet is perhaps history's great lab on consumer choice, and what it shows is that most people generally only want small doses of the main entree of hard news, and a lot more appetizers and dessert: sports, entertainment, celebrity gossip, clickbait self-help, pornography. 

That's why the addition of The Ringer is valuable for Medium. There are only so many tech confessional pieces even the most ardent tech enthusiast can handle in the Silicon Valley bubble chamber; scatter a few copies of US Weekly on the coffee table, and hang a flatscreen TV tuned into ESPN, and more people will visit more often.

My co-authors, Bart and JP, along with Sanjay Dhar, another co-author of theirs, had written a really important paper in the Journal of Political Economy a couple of years earlier that documented huge differences across U.S. cities in which brands are popular. They showed that that actually is correlated with the timing of which brands were introduced first in those cities, even though all of those introductions happened, for the most part, 50 or 100 years ago and few people remember a time when you couldn’t buy both. Say, for example, that we have two brands that have both been in a particular city for 50 years. If one was introduced 70 years ago and the other 50 years ago, you can predict that the one that’s been there for 70 years is going to have a much bigger market share.

We often think of first-mover advantage in sectors with network effects, perhaps none more clearly so than in messaging, with the odd geographically clustered favorites around the world. What Gentzkow notes here is that first-mover advantage can apply in consumer packaged goods, too. 

It's not that surprising, though I point it out for those who are always questioning why brands target unemployed millennials or kids without any income with advertising. Think about the loyalty fans have to sports teams from their childhood hometowns, long after they've moved elsewhere.

Our research results push back on that and say that, at least in this particular context, ownership is not really the key driver of slant and, in fact, a lot of the driver is actually coming from consumer demand. Not only does that say that you might not need to be as worried about ownership, but it also says that the welfare implications of this are a little more complicated because now consumers are getting what they want. 
We might think from a political, democratic point of view that it would be better if the public got different, more diverse information. But there’s going to be a welfare trade-off because we would be giving them content they would prefer less. If we want to give people diverse content that we think is good for democracy, then we have to get them to actually read, watch or consume it. And, you know, giving a bunch of people in conservative places some liberal newspaper—well, our results would suggest they’re not going to read it. So, that seems to have important implications for policy. 
But it comes with a really important caveat. The finding that ownership doesn’t matter in terms of a newspaper’s political slant is not a universal result. It doesn’t apply everywhere. It’s a statement about newspaper markets in the United States—a highly commercialized, relatively competitive setting, and a place where the political returns to manipulating the average content of a newspaper might not be all that big.

The chicken and egg question: did Fox News come along and satisfy a market need that conservatives weren't aware of, or did the market need summon Fox News out of nothingness?

If the filter bubble is not the internet's creation, but inherent to human nature, that argues for a much different solution than just exposing people to more ideas. Perhaps it's how the ideas are framed? How people are educated? Do we need to instill different mental models?

I'm fairly certain that taking an angry Trump supporter, cuffing them in a chair, locking their eyes open like Alex undergoing the Ludovico technique in A Clockwork Orange, and forcing them to watch Rachel Maddow for days on end isn't going to have the salutary effect one might suppose (and neither would force feeding a liberal Fox News).